Friday, February 18, 2011

108 to 3

A few weeks ago, I heard a story in the news.  The story is not what bothered me, though.  It’s the response to the story – and to others like it in recent years.  A high school girls’ basketball team in Utah beat another team by the score of 108 to 3.  The response was outcry against the victorious team.  The victor should have quit trying, quit making baskets, avoided making the other team look bad.  At the risk of controversy, I’m going to say that’s the wrong message to send the next generation.

Now I don’t know the whole story.  I was not there, I had no stake in the game.  If the winning team were poor sports, rubbed it in the face of the other team, then outcry is appropriate.  If the winning team kept their best players in the whole game to run up the score, then they (or at least the coach) should be chastised.  But I have not heard that to be the case.

How do you get better at something?  By practicing, and by competing against someone better than you.  I like to play basketball.  I’m not the greatest offensive player – in fact, many games I will not make a single basket – but I am a strong defensive player.  How did I become so?  By always taking on the very best player from the opposing team.  Every time I am on the court, I want to defend the biggest, fastest, strongest player on the other team.  I may get trampled every now and then, but more often than not I can make their best player ineffective.  If the first time I played a stronger player, they played down to my level, I would never have improved.  I would never have grown.  And worse, I would have been insulted.
If I were a member of a team that lost 108-3, I would feel humiliated (I’ve been on the wrong side of some lopsided scores myself).  But I would feel even more humiliated if the other team just played catch, or intentionally played beneath their level.  In a similar way, it is insulting to kids when every competitor “wins.”  What is the value in competing to be the best, if everyone wins a prize?  There is a distinct pride in doing one’s best, and seeing the results.  There is a satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something difficult – a satisfaction that cannot be found when you “win” for just showing up.

A colleague commented with a related story:  he was watching a show with his four-year-old; Aesop's fable about the grasshopper and the ant was on, but at the end of the story the ant invited the grasshopper in to share the food for the winter.  Is that really what we want to be teaching our children?  Let's party it up, someone more responsible will always be there to clean up the mess?

The same principle holds true in industry.  Do we play our “B” game just because a competitor is not keeping up?  No – we have a duty to our customer, and a duty to ourselves (never mind the fact that the moment we drop our guard, an unforeseen competitor will eat our lunch).

So I say, whether in sports, in business, or in life, play your “A” game all the time.  Be a good sport about it – and recognize that one day your “A” game may not be enough.  But let’s value competition, and let’s teach the next generation to do the same.  Competition makes everyone stronger.  Where will the next cool technology or market breakthrough come from if just showing up becomes enough?

Do you have something to add? A question you'd like answered? Think I'm out of my mind? Join the conversation below, reach out by email at david (at), or hit me up on Twitter at @dnlongen